On colour, communication and meaning

colour culture design Feb 21, 2024

A visit to the Colour Revolution - Victorian, Art Fashion and Design exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. How colour changes society, communication and in meaning.

Recently I visited the Colour Revolution - Victorian art, fashion and design exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The exhibition aimed to challenge some preconceived ideas of the Victorian period being drab, grey and void of colour.

Certainly when we think of Victorian England - the advent of the industrial revolution, coal fires, Dickensian poverty, Queen Victoria’s black mourning dress, we may imagine it dark and dusty. But of course there was colour, in nature and in new discoveries made through industry. Not just a period of industrial revolution it was a period for a colour revolution which meant change for society.

Intense purple dye was discovered through using a derivative of coal tar, this meant the working class were able to afford clothing in bright colours. Women were emboldened to wear brightly coloured stockings and dresses. The use of colour in sculptures was both novel and shocking to some. 

It was interesting to learn that colour had been considered secondary to composition and draftmanship in art, since the renaissance. As someone who delights in the beauty of colour in a sunset view or painting I consider it integral to choices in communication. I learned that Ruskin believed that the colours of the natural world could inspire and guide artists and as a gift from God should be replicated as truthfully as possible. 

I think what most challenged me most though, was that colour has imbibed meaning and can be used as a form of communication that is not always clear. Green was a colour for decadent writers and artists. Oscar Wilde wore a green dyed carnation which became a queer symbol, whereas gondoliers in Venice wore blue jackets that signified their homosexuality. The racy novels were known as yellow books, as their covers were all yellow. The colour black, known to signify mourning and worn for a extended period by Queen Victoria, was used instead to symbolise chicness and decadence in a painting featuring a woman in black dress lounging on a green sofa, yellow book in hand. (see above)

What challenged me, was that colour can have meaning and that that meaning can change. It can be subverted or come to be associated with different things over time. What I want to take away from this is when I use colour in design I don’t want to assume that everyone understands the same inference as maybe I intend. Not everything is always black and white.